War Stories

Why Ukraine Matters

Trump’s threat to withhold aid was impeachable, but was it a national security threat?

Troops hold anti-tank missiles in a parade.
Ukrainian service members ride on armored personnel carriers with Javelin anti-tank missiles during a military parade in Kyev on Aug. 24, 2018. Genya Savilov/AFP/Getty Images

President Donald Trump’s suspension of military aid to Ukraine, as a means of extracting dirt on a political rival at home, is almost certainly an impeachable offense (as an abuse of power and an act of bribery), but is it a national security issue? Does the defense of Ukraine matter that much to the security of the United States?

It’s a question that would have been shrugged off until recently. Ukraine, after all, is not a member of NATO. When the Soviet Union imploded and several of its newly independent fragments and client states were brought into the Western military alliance (Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania), Ukraine was not invited to join the club. Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush thought about extending an offer but decided against it, not least because polls revealed that most Ukrainians didn’t want to join—in fact, many in the eastern part of the country, who speak Russian and see themselves as ethnically Russian, viewed NATO as a threat.

Still, over the past decade, mass protests erupted in Western Ukraine, including Kyiv, the capital, against Moscow’s domination and in favor of joining the European Union. Partly in reaction, in 2014, Russian President Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea—an enclave that Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev had given Ukraine 60 years earlier—and sent troops and tanks across the border into Ukraine.

The Obama administration debated whether and how to come to Ukraine’s aid. Some Pentagon officials proposed sending “lethal” military supplies, including anti-tank missiles. Vice President Joe Biden backed up this proposal, arguing that it would force the Kremlin to pay a price for its aggression: Putin was keeping the incursion a secret from the Russian people—something he couldn’t do if body bags were showing up at bases.

However, President Barack Obama decided against the idea, reasoning that the Russians would respond by sending in more troops and weapons—and that they would keep escalating, regardless of how many armaments we sent. The U.S. may have an interest in defending Ukraine, he noted, but Russia had an existential interest: a long border, a long history, deep cultural and political ties—no Russian leader would risk letting Ukraine go.

Instead, Obama decided to send “nonlethal” military aid—Humvees, advanced radar, night-vision goggles, as well as U.S. personnel to train the Ukrainian army—and to coax Western European nations into imposing economic sanctions on Russia.

When Trump entered the White House, he had little interest in helping the Ukrainians—he was more interested in restoring relations with Russia—but his advisers felt otherwise. His secretary of defense, Jim Mattis, proposed lifting Obama’s ban on lethal weapons, selling Ukraine a couple hundred Javelin anti-tank missiles. The first of the missiles arrived in early 2018.

What has happened since? Have the Russians escalated the conflict, as Obama feared? Not really. Michael McFaul, who was Obama’s ambassador to Russia and is now a professor at Stanford, told me in an email on Friday, “There is no evidence that the escalation game which worried Obama ever played out.” However, McFaul also noted that Putin has “wanted to court Trump,” so “did not want to escalate.” He might have behaved differently if Hillary Clinton had won the 2016 election.

However, there is another, little-known factor: The Javelin anti-tank missiles—the weapons that upped the game and that Obama held back, fearing they would prod Russia to up the game further—have not yet been used in the fighting. In fact, says Charles Kupchan, former director for European affairs on the National Security Council, now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a professor at Georgetown, “They have not been deployed anywhere near the battlefront.”

The Javelins are all in the western part of Ukraine, where U.S. personnel are training some Ukrainian soldiers how to use them, if they ever need to be used—which they haven’t been yet. “They’ve had symbolic and psychological impact,” Kupchan told me in a phone conversation. “They’ve indicated to the Ukrainians that the U.S. has their back and is willing to up the ante.” But they’ve made no difference in the fight on the ground.

What has made a difference is the training, which has improved the quality of Ukrainian soldiers, and the radar, which has let the soldiers detect enemy movements. These goods and services were part of the “nonlethal” assistance that Obama supplied in 2014. Most of the Trump administration’s aid to Ukraine has been more of the same.

It was this year’s entire $391 million security assistance package—a few more Javelin missiles and money for radar, training, and so forth—that Trump withheld to pressure Volodymyr Zelensky into opening an investigation into Joe and Hunter Biden. Trump released the money after the damning phone call was publicized. If he hadn’t, the Ukrainian army would have been hurt—and its Russian opponents would have been helped.

Would that matter to the security of the U.S. or its formal allies? Well, it would now. By providing lethal aid, Trump had upped the commitment to Ukraine. Dropping that commitment, especially for such craven reasons, would heighten the anxieties of all allies over the seriousness of any U.S. commitment—and embolden all adversaries. By treating America’s friends and allies so casually, Trump has made the continued defense of Ukraine more vital.